29 June 2010

Hair and Tatoos

Today I rode the LeTour to work for the first time.   I was running a bit late--or, at least, I left my place a bit later than I'd planned--and forgot to bring my camera with me.  So I have no photos of myself or the bike or the commute.  But I'll tell you a bit about it.

First, fashion:  I feel as if I cheated a bit here.  I didn't ride in a skirt and heels.  Rather, I wore a sundress and my Keen sandals.  In a tote bag I stashed in my rear basket, I carried a short cardigan from a dusty blue twinset.   When I got to work, I slipped it over my dress, which was black with a hibiscus flower print in varying shades of blue.  One of those shades matched the sweater from the twinset, more or less.  And I also brought a pair of somewhat dressy black wedge sandals.  

I was glad to be wearing the sundress, as it was hot (though not as humid as yesterday).  And, of course, the Keen sandals were very comfortable.  

I didn't have any wardrobe malfunctions.  But the bike had a bit of a mishap.  Actually, it wasn't the bike itself; it was the rear rack.  The bolts that fasten the body of the rack to the arms that connect it to the seat stays fell out.  That caused my rack to flip backward and land on my fender.

Fortunately for me, I had just passed a hardware store, where I bought a package of screws and nuts, some lock washers and blue Loctite.  I've stopped there a few times before, as it's along one of my routes to and from work and other places.  Sometimes the guy behind the counter is an oldish Russian Jew who looks the way Alexander Solzhenitsyn (sp?) might have had he shaved.  But today I got this guy who is covered with tatoos and whose yellowing white hair  is longer than mine and beard is longer than mine ever was.  It's really odd to find him in that shop because it's at the corner of Metropolitan and 71st Avenues in Forest Hills, which is possibly the most resolutely bourgeois part of the city.  But he knows his stuff and is very helpful, which is one reason why his shop stays in business.

At one time in my youth, my hair was almost as long as that of the man in the hardware store.  And my beard, while not as long as his, was thick around my jaws and chin.   With all of the anger I felt in those days, I didn't need tatoos (which I've never gotten and probably never will get) or studded jacket to help me project an aura that said, "Stay the ---- away from me!"  I was like a cross between Charles Bronson and a hippie without the charm of either.

One hot day, I was riding my bike to my parents' house.  At the time, I was living in the town where I attended college (New Brunswick, NJ) and my parents were living on the Jersey Shore.  It was a thirty to thirty-five mile ride, depending on which route  I took.

Well, on that day, I peeled off my bike jersey before  I passed through Milltown, after which one of the early sedative drugs was named.  At that time, it was noted in the area for cops that were rumored to have been recruited in Alabama or from the KKK.  

One of those redneck officers actually pulled me over when I was riding along one of the streets.  In those days I didn't carry ID with me; most people didn't. 

"What are you doin' here?"

It took everything I had not to answer him sarcastically. But, fortunately for me, I managed to check that impulse.  

"What are you doin' here?"

"Riding my bicycle, sir."

"To where?"

"My mother's."

"All right.  Have a good day."

I haven't thought about that encounter in more than twenty years.  Now I wonder:  What would it have been like if I were covered with tatoos.

28 June 2010

Lightning Crashes

I didn't do a lot of cycling today:  just short hops for errands to the bank, post office and dry cleaner.  The day grew oppressively hot and humid very early and very quickly, and the haze that stretched like a gauze over the sun actually made it seem hotter somehow.  But, of course, that haze was a prelude to the weather about which the forecasters were warning.

I was tempted to go out in the rain.  I used to do that often when I was younger:  On warm, wet days I would hop on my bike while wearing as little as I could get away with.  I reasoned that on a warm day, I didn't need insulation, and that whether or not I wore anything, I'd be soaked to my skin anyway.   

Plus, I used to love the feel of the rain against my skin.  Actually, I still do.  And I'll tell you a secret:  It's better when you're not high or drunk.  It's even better when you're full of estrogen.  

Anyway...I didn't go for a ride in the rain.  What the National Weather Service issued was not just a forecast for rain; it was a warning of severe thunderstorms.  Somehow I get the feeling that getting struck by lightning wouldn't enhance my experience of the ride.  Plus, it got very windy.   There was a tornado in Connecticut last week, so I was thinking of that.  

Now, I've ridden--though unintentionally--through thunderstorms.  Why do they call them "thunderstorms" anyway?  The thunder is just a lot of noise:  It doesn't do much more than make my cats hide.  It's the lightning that really matters, especially when you're riding.

Of the times I've ridden in thunderstorms, two in particular come to mind.

The first was some time in my early adulthood.  It was about a year after I'd gotten back from living in France.  My grandmother had died a few months before, and I was still grieving and angry (and would remain so for a long time afterward).  I had moved back to the town where I went to college.  That wasn't a good move, except for one thing:  New York wasn't far away.  Sometimes I would make a day trip out of pedalling in, riding in the parks or along the Verrazano-Narrows promenade, or through some neighborhood that looked interesting, and having lunch and/or going to book and record shops before riding back.  

Well, on that day, I pedalled out to Coney Island--which, in those days, looked like the Atlantic City of Louis Malle's eponymous film, but without the colorful characters.  All that you could find there in those days, besides Nathan's (whose French fries I used to love), were whatever the tides deposited on the beach and the subways expelled onto the streets.  It was literally the end of the line, in every way you could think of.

And that was part of its appeal for me. It was a time in my life when I was disguising my self-loathing as some sort of somewhat hip misanthropy--and I pretended not to be aware of what I was doing.  I convinced myself that I hated all those people who looked like they were having fun when the truth was that I wanted to be one of them.  That would have violated almost everything I believed --or professed to believing --in.

So...When I got to Coney Island--after about forty miles of riding--I bought something that was, at the time, illegal everywhere in the US and is now allowed for medical purposes in a few states.  (I can say this now, as the statute of limitations has expired!)  In those days, it wasn't hard to find on Coney Island.  And, let's just say that afterward, I spent I-don't-know-how long watching the waves before going to Nathan's and eating three orders of French fries, the way I have always liked them:  garnished with spicy mustard and diced onions.

As I passed under the viaduct for the trains, rain began to drop.  As I crossed the bridge over Coney Island Creek into Bath Beach and Bensonhurst,  the drops turned into a fall, then a deluge.  I heard rumblings, but I kept on riding.

Then I climbed the stairs to the Brooklyn Bridge.  (The ramp to Tillary Street hadn't been built yet.)  Enough rain had fallen that the pavement and pedestrian path weren't slick; the rain was washing everything away.  So, I wasn't concerned until I was near the middle of the span, a couple hundred feet over the water.

Then, the lights of the city got bright--really bright.  Lightning flashed all around me:  Only Roebling's hundred-year-old steel cables stood between me and it.  High as I was, I started to get nervous.  I remembered--from Boy Scouts?--that lightning will strike the tallest thing in its path.  All right, I thought, the towers of the bridge stood a couple hundred feet higher than I did.  But each of them was about a quarter-mile away from me, in either direction.  And I was at the point on the bridge where the long transverse cables dip.  So, as there were no other cyclists, and no pedestrians, on the bridge, it looked like I was the tallest structure between those two towers.  

Nearly two decades later, I would have a much closer encounter with lightning while riding.  Tammy and I were touring the Loire Valley.  We had left Chinon that morning and were pedalling along one of the many pleasant roads (Routes Departmentales) found in that area.  The early sunshine continued into afternoon; about an hour after we had lunch, the sky darkened quickly.  We were in flat farm country:  The only things that stood before us, besides the tall poppies, grain and trees, was a silo that looked to be a few kilometers away.  

Seemingly within an instant, we went from glistening with our sweat to slick from the rain that poured down.  She spotted what looked like a lean-to, but we both decided it was better to press on:  We were soaked and we didn't know how long the storm would last.

I felt my skin tingle that turned into a subcutaneous electric shock.  I yelled, "Watch out!"  A bolt of lightining crashed only a few meters, if that, in front of me.  That night, ensconced in one of those charming gites one finds whether or not one is looking for them, we agreed that it was the loudest boom either of us had ever heard.  At least, I'm pretty sure that's what we said:  I think my hearing was just starting to come back.

Hmm...If I'd been struck by lightning that day, I could have been a hero, sort of.  After all, it would have hit me because, I was riding in front of Tammy.  (I did through most of the trip, mainly because I'd cycled in that part of France before, could speak French and had navigational skills that were less bad than hers.  That's not to say mine were or are good:  I inherited them from Columbus!)  Would I have been given la Legion d'Honneur for protecting a woman's honor?  

Of course, I've since learned that a woman is the only one who can protect her own honor, and that we perpetuate the patriarchy--and, sometimes, simply get along--when we let men think they're doing that for us. But I'm digressing--really digressing!

That day in the Loire Valley, I was many years clean and sober and could practically feel the lightning coursing through me.  I can only imagine how it would feel now, as the hormones seem to have removed one layer of skin all over my body and the surgery seems to have pulled away another.  Actually, it did, but that's another story. 

P.S.  If you're worried that cycling will make you impotent, don't read this.  

26 June 2010

Cycling In Atlantis

I got up late today and had to run a couple of errands--including a trip to the farmer's market on Roosevelt Island.  As the day was a hot and humid day, I waited until it was almost over to go for a ride.

So I let Tosca take me wherever she wanted.  Being a fixed-gear bike, she tends to favor flat areas.  As I am still not in my best shape, I am happy to go along with her.

Among other places, we went to this:

And this:


In Newark, there's a section of the city called "The Ironbound" because railroad tracks form its borders.  That's not where I rode today.  But the part of the Bronx shown in the photos could just as easily have been so named.  It's ringed, bound and criss-crossed by elevated highways and railroad tracks, all in steel of one kind or another.

I don't spend enough time in the neighborhood on weekdays to know whether or not the tracks shown in the photos see very many trains.  I know that the neighborhood is still an active industrial area:  the fleets of trucks and vans parked in lots and on streets are testimony to that.  But on the weekends, it could just as well be one of those ancient Greek and Roman ghost towns I've seen along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts.  The people are gone, but the looming monoliths stand, and probably will stand for some time to come.

As you might expect, on the other side of the tracks and highways are low-income neighborhoods populated almost entirely by people of color.  Hip hop music was born on those streets.  Someone, I forget who, referred to the Bronx as the "Atlantis of Hip-Hop."  

Sometimes I feel as if I am cycling in Atlantis, or among shipwrecks.  However, the viaducts and buildings, while gritty, are hardly ruins:  They're intact, and on Monday they will be full of people and vehicles.  But, for now, they're empty.

All of the neighborhood is near water--specifically, the East River, which is really an inlet of the ocean.  However, you wouldn't want to swim in it, even if these guys do it:

Actually, they're in the Bronx Kill, which is a branch of the East River.  It separates the Bronx from Randall's Island and may be the most polluted waterway in the United States.  I took the photo from a spur of the RFK/Triborough Bridge.

If you're in the neighborhood and want to swim, this is where you go:

It's a floating pool in Barretto Park.  I always thought the idea of swimming in one body of water that floats on top of another was rather surreal, though, in practice, it's not much different from swimming in any other kind of pool.  Well, I don't know whether I can generalize.  I've swum in only one floating pool:  the old Piscine Deligny.  Going there was more like going on a cruise than it was like going to any other pool I've ever seen. 

I understand that a new Piscine Deligny is being constructed to replace the one in which I swam.  But that's not the reason why it's being replaced:  The old pool sank in 1993.  (I had absolutely nothing to do with that!)

And so people will continue to swim in one body of water that floats on another.  Then again, any journey-any bike ride-- we take is a bit like surfing the march of time.

25 June 2010

You Ride Like A Girl!

"You throw like a girl!"

Hearing that'll ruin any boy's day.  I heard it again, today, except that it wasn't directed at me.  Then again, I wasn't throwing anything.

If I were to throw anything, would I throw like a girl?

I just got another catalogue from Terry Bicycles.  Some of their products are printed or emblazoned with the logo "Ride Like A Girl!"

That got me to wondering whether one rider in the Tour de France peloton ever told another, "Vous pedale comme une fille!"  What, exactly, would "pedalling like a girl"  look like?

I remember the time a couple of years ago when I passed a couple of guys on Greenpoint Avenue, just after crossing the bridge from Long Island City.  They caught up to me when I stopped for the light at the intersection with Manhattan Avenue.  One of them yelled, "You ride real good for a lady!"

Then, there was the time--not too long ago--when I was riding down Van Sinderen Avenue in East New York.  A bunch of young guys and a couple of slightly-older men looked like they were having a campfire, sans the campfire, on their bikes.  A couple of the younger guys yelled, "Hey, babe."  Another added, "Wanna ride with us?"  As I passed, I heard one guy say, "That's no chick.  She rides too fast!"

So...Fast women aren't supposed to ride bikes?  Hmm...Well, I'm not a fast woman.  First of all, I just ate.  And I am--and always have been-- monogamous, if serially.  

Now let me get this right:  I might ride like a girl because I ride real good for a lady, but I'm too fast of a woman to ride like a chick.  Now, if I can formulate a relevant syllogism from all that, I might get tenure someplace--unless, of course, some student actually understands anything I said.

Besides...How can you be offended to hear "You play like a girl" after you've seen Mia Hamm?  And why would "You ride like a girl" stick in your craw if you've seen Rebecca Twigg or Paola Pezzo on their mounts?

The irony is that all of the time I spent riding with guys so I could ride like them, only better, actually helped me to my current path.  So where will riding like a woman take me?

24 June 2010

Velouria Gets Fixed Up

"Velouria," whose wonderful writing and photography graces her "Lovely Bicycle!" blog, has given new meaning to "Be careful of what you wish for."

She has written about her "attraction to beautiful track bikes" and "wistfulness for the velodrome," which she had dismissed as "ludicrous."

Well, I warned her....If we dismiss or resist something long enough, we'll take to it, or it will take us!  (Trust me, I know that as well as anybody can.) So I exhorted her to "go for it."  And, I made a deal:  My spirit would guide her if she promised to bring back one of those beautiful dress guards she always seems to find when she's in Vienna.

Yesterday she took her first ride on a track bike--yes, in Vienna!  And, from what she says, she enjoyed the experience.

I can just see it now:  Velouria on the velodrome in Vienna!

Could this be her future?:

Congratulations, Velouria.  And you owe me a dress guard! ;-)

23 June 2010

A World of Bike Dreams

You've probably heard this joke:   

There are two kinds of people in this world:  Those who categorize people and those who don't.

Well, I haven't met very many people who don't fall into the second category, at least some of the time.  And I am as guilty as anyone of dividing people into categories.  I often do that when I teach, especially when I tell my students that there are basically two kinds of people in the world:  dreamers and schemers.  Very few of us are purely one or the other, but most of us tend toward one or the other.  And, of course, it's very important to know what you tend to, and to find someone else with the opposite tendency.  As if I know how to make a relationship work!

So what are cyclists?  I guess the ones who ride because it's cheaper than driving or using mass transit are schemers, or at least pragmatic people.  And those who do it as a release or escape are most likely dreamers of some kind.

Well, I know which one I am.  Perhaps my condition is genetic.  But I think it also has to do with having seen this very early in my life:

The Unisphere was the centerpiece of the 1964-65 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows Park, which is about six miles from where I live.  My family and I went to the Fair when I was about seven years old.  My youngest brother was born only a few months earlier.

Years later, when I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, I rode in one of the early Five Boro Bike Tours.  At the end of the ride,  a man whom I never saw again invited me to join a couple of other guys and a woman I never saw again for some post-Tour beer.  From Manhattan, where the tour started and ended, we rode across the Queensboro (a.k.a. 59th Street) Bridge to Woodside, a neighborhood that probably had, at the time, the greatest concentration of Irish people--and Irish bars--outside Dublin.  

Back then, my hair was redder than it is now and I think that I'd first grown a beard around that time.  Also, if I recall correctly, I wore a stovepipe hat.  Back in those days, few cyclists wore helmets (which were the useless "leather hairnet" variety), so unless the weather was very hot,  I wore my stovepipe hat or my beret when I rode.  I don't recall why I chose the stovepipe hat on the day of the Tour.

Anyway, a couple of the bar patrons adopted me for the day and, after staying somewhere I can't recall,  we spent much of the following day riding in circles around the Unisphere when we weren't emptying bottles of beer that were much better than any other I'd drunk up to that time in my life.

That, I must say, is a long way--in spirit if not in distance--from my ride today:

Yes, I was test-riding the Le Tour III.  If you saw my previous photos of it, you'll notice one difference:  the Wald fold-up baskets in the rear.  I haven't used them yet, but they look like a good design--and that they would be bombproof.  

Naturally, I had to do a test-ride in a dress or skirt, as I plan to use the bike for commuting.  As it was hot today, I opted for a sun dress.  And I wasn't wearing high heels:  Instead, I wore wedge sandals.  Still, I felt I was close to "real life" commuting conditions, at least for me.  

The bike is "almost there."  I've adjusted the seat and bars to comfortable positons.  I'm still not sure of whether I'll add a front basket.  I like to keep my purse in it when I ride.  But I really don't like to put much more in them, as weight on handlebars affects steering.  (Of course, I didn't say that to the dancer I once escorted on my Cinelli Giro d'Italias through the streets of Soho!)  Plus, I haven't had the best of luck with baskets:  I've broken a couple of wicker ones and a "quick release" version did exactly that as my wheels bounced along a street in an industrial area of Maspeth.  Maybe I'll get a small basket that attaches with a brace to the front dropout.

OK, so I'm being practical--a schemer.  But can one be called a schemer if her real purpose is to enable a dreamer?

21 June 2010

Revisiting: Twenty Years After Abandoning and Escaping

If the Lord was the shepherd of some old Hebrew poet, then my navigator, at least for today, was this fella:

He leadeth me to the still (well, not quite) waters of places I haven't seen in a long time--  specifically, about twenty years:

I hadn't actually planned on riding there.  I passed it en route from my house to no place in particular.  Those of you who ride a lot know the kind of ride I'm talking about.

On the ride, I ended up here.... 

...among other places.  I guess, in some weird way, it makes sense that I went by the hospital in the second photo before I came to the house you see above.  Both places housed lives that are no longer there.  The difference is that, to my knowledge, I never knew anyone who lived in the abandoned house.  On the other hand, for two years of my life, I was involved, if in a peripheral way, in the lives of some patients, staff members and the director of surgery at that hospital.  To my knowledge, none of them are there any more. 

If any of you have grown up on military bases, you probably recall at least one house that looks something like this:

Although this house is not abandoned, it is not occupied, at least for now.  But I'm sure it will be soon.  After all, this is one of the  views from it:

And here's another:

It never ceases to amaze me how much prime real estate the military once had--and, in some parts of the country, still has.   

Both of those houses are in Fort Totten, on Long Island Sound in Bayside, NY. It was still an active military base when I was doing poetry workshops with the handicapped and chronically (and, in a couple of cases, terminally) ill kids at St. Mary's Hospital.  Now only a small part of the base is used for Army Reserve exercises; other parts are used to train specialists in the Fire Department.  The rest has become a park with some really lovely car-free places to ride and walk.  Plus--for those of you whose interests are anything like mine--the place is in Gatsby country.

Every week, I used to go to the hospital, which then had a school for the kids who were patients there.  The Board of Ed maintained and staffed it.  

Back then, I was living in Washington Heights,  in upper Manhattan.  Unless it was snowing or sleeting, I used to ride my bike--seventeen miles each way, on a Follis ten-speed from the 1960's that served as my commuter.  In some weird way, riding to the kids made me feel closer to them.  I guess it made me conscious of some of the things I could, and they couldn't, do.

Until today, I hadn't been to the hospital in nearly twenty years.  That means, of course, none of the kids I worked with are there.  Some may have gone on to lives much like other adults of their age; a few might be dead.  One girl died during the time I was there; even though she was only eleven, she lived longer than anyone expected.  

The director of surgery--who actually initiated the project and secured the grant for it--is probably retired.  So are the teachers who were there at the time, as well as many of the staff members: most of them weren't young.  

Even though I haven't seen any of those kids since then, I've thought about them often.  In fact, I thought about them a lot when I was starting my transition.  Many of the poems and stories they wrote--or dictated to me--were about running, flying, jumping, dancing and riding bikes:  the things they couldn't do.  Most people, including their teachers, said the kids had "vivid imaginations."  But one day, when I was talking with the director of surgery--Dr. Burton Grebin--I voiced something I realized at that moment: "They really are doing those things.  Their minds, their spirits, dance, jump and do all those things some of us can do with our bodies."

"That's exactly the reason why I have always supported the project," he said.  "It's the reason why things like poetry and art are, in their own ways, as important as the medicines and procedures we offer here."

That realization, and those kids always stuck in my mind.  And I finally realized why they mattered so much--which is to say, why I, who was pedalling over 300 miles a week, not counting my racing, identified so much with them:  We saw our true selves in our minds and spirits, and our bodies couldn't express who we are.

At the end of every day I worked with them, I used to pedal (actually, coast) down the hill toward Fort Totten.  Back then, it was still an active base and therefore not open to the public.  So, I used to go to a small park that stood just to the west of the fort's entrance, where one could see this:

The suspension bridge is the Bronx-Whitestone.   In the fall and winter, I used to sit there and read or write, or simply gaze, until dusk. Then I would start pedaling home along the nice little promenade that winds its way below the span and skirts the water.

As it was the first day of summer, I didn't wait that long today.  I was getting hungry and tired; I'd pedalled about 30 miles, which included a few hills, on Tosca, my fixed-gear.  What else could have I ridden to a current or former military base?  After all, multiple gears are for sissies.  (You know I couldn't resist that one!)